It is surprising how often one hears or reads ‘tool kit’ when it comes to agricultural technology. Most recently ‘tool-kit’ has accompanied the word ‘glyphosate’, as in ‘glyphosate is an essential part of the arable farmers tool kit’. Moreover, the word ‘sustainable’ often swiftly follows in that arable farming and, especially, those employing zero-tillage, low-carbon-loss systems will not be viable without glyphosate in their tool kit. I am not about to get into the glyphosate debate itself, but with respect to glyphosate, have we lost the plot?
To my mind the ‘sustainable’ means that we can carry on an action infinitum because it is natural-resource-consumption neutral. It is de facto perpetual motion. It is, if one ignores extinction events, how our planet has functioned for billions of years. All resource use within nature is cyclical. It is something we seem to have forgotten about in agriculture over the last half a century as we increasingly believed that we could disrupt natural cycles with man-made inventions. At the same time we tell the world that what we are doing is ‘sustainable’. What’s more, we should ‘trust the science’ when it comes to them telling us that their newest and latest technology improves ‘sustainability’.
If one thinks about it, if a technology is sustainable it would not need to be frequently updated. When it comes to sustainable food production, food production is sustainable only so long as the cycle of renewal of our technologists happens! Is, in this case, ‘sustainable’ an oxymoron?
The issue with many of our agricultural technologies is that they are designed to destroy organisms that inhibit our capacity to produce food. These organisms, created by Mother Nature, do, however, have their own agendas; their own survival. It is their determination to survive attacks from our science-derived solutions that eventually renders the solutions obsolete. The lesson of the last 50 years is that that obsolescence will occur; it is a matter of when, not if. We have reached a point where are food systems and our food security are reliant on science’s ability to frequently renew our tool kit, to ‘re-chrome our spanners’. Is this a sustainable food system?
My link to glyphosate relates to herbicide-resistant blackgrass. There appears to be a pro- glyphosate argument that states; “we must be able to use glyphosate because blackgrass has become resistant to all other herbicides designed to kill it”. But should we not be assuming that at some future point glyphosate-resistant blackgrass will emerge? Glyphosate will become obsolete and it is a matter of when, not if. And as we are finding with antibiotics, wormers, fungicides… the more we use a technology, the more rapidly it becomes obsolete. Increasing exposure provides the pathogen with greater opportunity to evolve its resistance. Low-dose, frequent and protective use only makes it that much easier for the pathogen to evolve resistance. As this goes on our science-reliant food systems become less resilient and less sustainable.
My response to the glyphosate issue is to say that farmers must plan to lose it. It may come through regulation in the face of consumer/lobbyist pressure or it may come through the weeds it is targeted at deciding that they do not want to accept their fate. It is a question of which comes first and my guess is that it will happen within the next decade. The message should be that farmers must plan for it to happen and to develop alternative solutions. Our researchers must support them and, if we are wise as a society, we must insist that the research is not just focused on repeating a technologically-driven cycle that is not in itself sustainable.
I am already hearing a common response; that we must free those who develop our technological solutions to bring new products to the market faster. We cannot afford to be cautious, we cannot use the precautionary principle. There is, nonetheless, a proportion of our society which does not accept this approach. They are concerned that continuous exposure to our food production solutions are not just bad for the target organisms but also damaging to human health and/or the wider environment. They do not wish to ‘trust the science’.
I follow what is happening in the nutrition world closely and I am seeing the nutritional guidelines of the last 50 years unravelling. For decades, we have been told what to eat [to ‘trust the science’], and where has it got us? As far as I can see, it is to a global pandemic of illness caused by malnutrition. Do we blame the individual for not rigorously following the dietary guidelines or do we look at what we have been told and the food that we are fed [which is often dictated by the dietary guidelines]? Right or wrong, there are a great many people around who are now asking themselves what does long-term exposure to, say sugar, do to human health? Those who consume organic food have already made a choice based upon their belief that long-term exposure to our chemical farming solutions will have a detrimental impact upon their health. Can they prove it, probably not, but neither can we categorically contradict them. Long-term exposure is simply an on-going experiment.
The point I am making is that the precautionary principle is likely to be around for a while when it comes to licensing new products [tools] for farmers to use. Apparently, some consider that Brexit is an opportunity to lighten the regulatory touch. But will this really happen; will the lobbyists mysteriously disappear? Or will an increasingly aware [be they rightly or wrongly informed] consumer have the final say? If anything, they are likely to become more vocal as, for example, soil health moves up the agenda of social media’s ‘chattering classes’. And one can see a time not very far away when the consumer-lobbyists starts asking what the impact of long-term exposure to pesticides and artificial fertilizers does to the health of our soils and to their own food security.
Whichever way one looks at it, the availability of our chemical farming solutions is going to be constrained. It may be through the development of resistance by the targeted organisms, it may be through the cost of solution-regeneration or it may be through consumer-lobbyist resistance to buying and consuming the end-product and/or demanding greater regulatory control. The only certainty is that we cannot continue to be as profligate as we have been when it comes to using certain food production solutions. And the more we use them the faster will obsolesce occur. It is why we should return these ‘farming tools’ to the ‘medical chest’; they need to be the solutions of last resort and not everyday tools. It is a mindset that must change otherwise we will just lose our tools that much quicker. It is better that we work out how to feed ourselves without them sooner rather than later because common sense should be telling us that we cannot create a sustainable food system with solutions that are not in themselves sustainable.